A CHURCH SCANDAL.
The Greco-Russian School in Trouble.
Grave Charges of Cruelty to Children.
Two Officials Arrested and a Dozen Well-Fed Boys Held as Witnesses.
For several days past shocking tales of cruelty to children on the part of the managers of the Greco-Russian Church have been told to the officers of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, and these resulted yesterday in the arrest of Superintendent E. P. Alexine and his assistant, Paul Ligda, although the stories told by the alleged victims, who are held as witnesses, do not seem to bear out the charges made to the society.
The formal charge against the superintendent and his assistant is ³causing a child to suffer.² Both men were released on $500 bonds. Fourteen young boys, the cause of the trouble, were detained in the city prison as witnesses.
Several weeks ago Joseph Levin, who was formerly a priest in the Greco-Russian Church on Powell street and Montgomery avenue, and who was dismissed from service by Bishop Vladimir, complained to Secretary Holbrook that students in the school department of the church were inhumanly treated. He said that the boys, who range in age from 9 to 15 years, were brought from Alaska by the Bishop, ostensibly to be educated for the priesthood, but they were in fact nothing more than slaves of brutal masters. He said that their food was poor and their clothes ragged and covered with vermin and that they were cruelly beaten and subjected to improper usage. A cursory investigation was made by officer Comstock, who decided that there was no cause for action. Still complaints were made by the ex-priest and recently his statements were substantiated by Edward Meyers, and attorney, who urged a thorough investigation. On Wednesday Secretary Holbroock went to the church and made an examination of the case.
³I took the boys one by one and questioned them,² said Mr. Holbroock. ³Every boy said that he wanted to leave the lace on account of the treatment that he and his companions received at the hands of the Bishop, Superintendent Alexine and Assistant Ligda. They said they were fed on bread and water for five days in the week and water without bread on Wednesdays and Fridays, which are fast days. It was a wretched-looking crowd of little urchins, dirty, clothed in filthy garments and malodorous. They told me that the Bishop often punched them in the stomach with his heavy cane, and one was sick for a long time in consequence of a blow thus received. Cuffs and kicks were of frequent occurrence. But the worst of all of them was the dungeon. I went to the dungeon and found it to be a dark room in the basement under the church. It is about six by seven feet in size and the only light and air that reach it come through a few holes punched in tins covering a small window near the ceiling. The stench in the place is something frightful. The boys told me that they were frequently kept in this blackhole for two and four days at a time, and as there is no bed in the room their sufferings must have been terrible. I found also that all the boys sleep in a damp, poorly furnished bedroom under the church. I decided that something must be done at once to afford them relief, and at once I consulted with Charles Sonntag, the president of our society, and we spoke to Gustave Niebaum, the acting Russian Consul. He advised us to get out warrants for the arrest of the parties concerned. Mr. Niebam stated that his attention had been called to the case and he had written to the authorities at St. Petersburg complaining of the Bishop and his assistants. The Bishop is now in Alaska, where he went, it is said, to get more boys.²
Yesterday when Alexine and Ligda were arrested the officers found the youthful students were dressed and clean. As the officers marched the youngsters to the city prison to be held as witnesses it looked like an Indian kindergarten out for an airing. The youngsters were placed in what are known as the ³bird cages.²
It was a curious assemblage that looked out through the bars. Andrew Kaveutk, a lad 14 years old, is an Indian from Sitka. His face is broad as a full moon and as round as a doughnut. His lips are full and his small, squint eyes are as black as jet.
Between the next pair of bars appeared the face of James Corcoran, aged 13, whose father if Irish and whose mother, now dead, was a half-breed Russian woman. The boy is of very fair complexion, with blue eyes and flaxen air.
Still another, Elias Nalk, is an Esquimau, whose features do not indicate a high order of intellect. And so they run, Esquimaux, Russians, half-breeds and nondescripts. Many of their names end with the Russian ³off² and Peter, Paul and Nicholas seem to be the favored given names. All are healthy and fat as young ducks, and show no traces or signs of having suffered from ill-usage, starvation or prolonged fasting.
All of the boys were questioned by a Chronicle reporter last night, and with few exceptions they made very little complaint. Andrew Kaveutk, however, said that the Bishop had poked him in the stomach several times with his heavy cane. Pal Kokoranin, a boy 10 years old, stated that Ligda had kicked him on several occasions so severely that he could not sit down with comfort for a day or two. George Kochergin also complained of having received similar treatment. Nicholas Savchinnikoff told of a fight that he had a short time ago with Alexine. He said that he only ³looked² at Alexine when the latter struck him with his flat hand on the face. This made the boy mad, and he tried to strike the superintendent with a bottle, but was knocked down by a blow from Alexine¹s clenched fist. Nicholas spent two days in dungeon living on bread and water for him misconduct.
All of the boys except the Esquimaux had served time on bread and water in the dreaded dungeon.
In speaking of their food the students said that they were given bread, meat, rice, coffee and tea five days in the week. On fast days they received coffee, tea and bread, and they had fish for supper. Their wearing apparel was changed once a week and their bed clothes every week or ten days. They were given a bath every eight or ten days. Their rooms were cleaned every day, and when a boy was sick he was sent to the children¹s hospital. They were not required to work and their studies were not hard. Such were the stories told by the youngsters, and aside from their stories of getting their hair and ears pulled and being occasionally poked in the stomach with a cane and kicked or sent to the dungeon they made very little complaint. However, they all say they want to go back to Alaska, even those who are orphans.
At the church the Chronicle reporter was received by Paul Ligda, one of the accused. He denied that either he or his superiors were cruel to their charges. ³These boys,² said he, ³are being educated for the priesthood. Bishop Vladimir supports and pays for the maintenance of five of them, and the tuition of the others is paid for by the Government. We are not cruel to them. When they get unruly we pull them by the ears and send them to the dungeon for a few hours. We give them as much good food as would satisfy even working men, and they have baths once in seven or ten days. Their bed clothes are changed once a week or so, and they have all the light, air and exercise they want. Yes; I did strike one of the big boys in self-defense. He assaulted me with a bottle.²
Professor Ligda refused to allow an inspection to be made of the dungeon or the sleeping-room, saying that he had been so directed by the Bishop before he left.
Careful inquiry failed to show that the officers of the school had been guilty of any misconduct toward the students. They are married and live with their wives and families.
Prominent Russian citizens state that the trouble is the outgrowth of the recent strife between Bishop Vladimir and Joseph Levin, the ex-priest of the Greco-Russian Church. Levin, who was expelled by the Bishop, is the man who started the prosecution, and his attorney in the matter is Edward Myers, who is also acting as Levin¹s attorney in a suit for damages against the Bishop.
The San Francisco Chronicle, Friday, June 12, 1891, p. 8:3.